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27 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Between Love and Survival is Live and Become

What would you do to survive? Some men have pragmatically resorted to cannibalism and others have betrayed their humanity in desperation. Somewhere there exists a twilight, a gray area where lies and theft can be deemed justified. In this murky territory lofty intellectual questions of belief and personal identity can be raised. More often the question has been: Is it OK to pretend to be Christian rather than Jewish, Catholic or whatever, in order to live an easier life? Here the question is: Is it acceptable to pretend one is Jewish to survive?

In director Radu Mihaileanu's 2005 provocative though sentimental movie Va, Vis et Deviens, an Ethiopian Christian mother (Meskie Shibru Sivan) orders her son to pretend he is Jewish in order to be rescued by a covert Israeli-sponsored mission called Operation Moses. They are in a Sudanese refugee camp in 1984, surrounded by death and dust. They had to walk miles to get there, leaving everything behind. He is replacing a boy who has just died, adopted by the grief-stricken Jewish mother, Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebede).

Called Live and Become in English, this movie deals with the gray areas personal integrity--of personal identity and love. The boy who becomes Shlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe and lastly by Sirak M. Sabahat) is taught his new history and told to forget his own. He's too young to fathom why his real mother ordered him to leave and too soon, his adoptive mother also dies. Losing two mothers, he becomes a problem child.

Yet he's not the only orphan and eventually, he's adopted by a socially responsible French Israeli couple, Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem), who already have two children.

Being Jewish in Israel shouldn't be a problem yet Shlomo is very black. His color and the color of real Falasha, Ethiopian Jews, becomes a social issue and one that his adoptive mother and father bravely confront while he more passively endures.

Secretly, he finds a way to send letters to his real mother, asking an Ethiopian rabbi Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar) to write letters in Amharic, his native language.

As a teenager, he falls in love with Sarah (Roni Hadar) whose father disapproves of the match so much that no one in Sarah's family attends the wedding. Shlomo's fear of being discovered and his desire to reveal the truth and yet keep this new family and this safety guaranteed by his false heritage provide the suspense and moral core of this movie.

Written by Mihaileanu with Alain-Michel Blanc, this imperfect movie tries to be both a formulaic movie fairy tale with a happy ending and a social message movie. It doesn't always work, but the characters are so engaging and the themes so universal you want it to work. Who hasn't been tempted to pretend one is something one is not to get though an uneasy situation?

Remy Chevin's cinematography doesn't always light the darker face of the actor playing Shlomo when juxtaposed to a lighter face and this aspect doesn't seem to have a message there. Moreover, almost too much territory is covered in Shlomo's adult life, making for a choppiness that is at odds with the more solemn pace of the first half.

Hadar glows with a rush of enthusiasm and boundless energy in contrast to Sabahat's portrayal of the adult Shlomo as an outsider, often watching and observing himself because his secret is so great it threatens to destroy everything in his world.

The ending is, perhaps, too sentimental, but forgivable. This movie has touched the hearts of many. It won Cesar Awards in 2006 for Best Original Screenplay, an Audience Award at the 1005 Vancouver International Film Festival, a 2006 World Audience Award at the Lumiere Awards in France and 2005 Label Europa Cinemas, Panorama Audience Award and Prise of the Ecumenical Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Sometimes one does go to a movie to see a fate happier than reality and yet when a movie can do that and make you care about its characters while learning about a bit of history and social injustice, isn't it a little gem, no matter how rough, that should be considered precious?

In Amharic, Hebrew and French.

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